#FailForNail* and #FailForMikhail have become increasingly popular Twitter hashtags within hockey circles as we approach the NHL Draft on June 22nd at the Console Energy Center in Pittsburgh. As such, and given the Sabres current position in the standings, many Sabres fans are beginning to look towards the draft and evaluating players that may be available when the Sabres pick. The Sabres are currently in 26th place in the NHL, that is 5th overall in draft speak. 5th place would enter them in the draft lottery and give them an 8.1% chance to win the 1st overall pick, a 23.2% chance of falling to 6th overall, and a 68.7% chance of remaining in the 5th spot.
The Sabres lack a true blue chip prospect, one guy to pin their hopes on for the future. As a reward for their futility this season, they may have the opportunity to to get that guy you can build a team around. Here are five highly ranked players the Sabres should be keeping an eye on, in order of preference.
Nail Yakupov – RW – Sarnia Sting – OHL
26 GP – 21 G – 32 A – 53 P
Talent Analysis: Simply put, the Russian is an explosive, game breaking talent. His style is often compared to that of Pavel Bure or Ilya Kovalchuk. Keep in mind, that is a style comparison and not a upside comparison. Yakupov is extremely elusive and possesses that special ability to get fans out of their seat each and every time he touches the puck. The electrifying winger is the type of player that is worth the ticket price all on his own. He is primarily a goal scorer with the same enthusiasm for scoring goals as some of his other Russian counterparts in the NHL like Ovechkin and Kovalchuk. Yakupov exhibits a quick, accurate shot and is slowly rounding out some of his deficiencies in the defensive side of the game as well as his playmaking game. Yakupov has been noted by Assistant GM of the Sarnia Sting, Mark Glavin, to be one of the hardest workers on the team off the ice. He is the type of player that never takes a shift off and fights for every inch of ice he gets. Yakupov will likely force his way onto an NHL roster next season as he has nothing left to prove in the OHL.
Why the Sabres should pick him: Best player available. Yakupov is the favorite for the 1st overall pick and a lock for top three. The only way the Sabres contemplate not taking him is if Mikhail Grigorenko is still on the board, basically only if they are a top two pick. He does not fit a need for them, positionally, but he is the type of game breaking offensive dynamo that this team needs, one that you do not pass up if you have an opportunity to draft them. Yakupov does not carry the same risk of bolting to the KHL as many Russians do. Yakupov came to America when he was 16 after he was drafted 2nd overall in the OHL import draft. He has made it clear that his plans are to stay in North America and pursue his dream of playing in the NHL, otherwise he would not have come here in the first place.
Mikhail Grigorenko – C – Quebec Remparts – QMJHL
38 GP – 27 G – 33 A – 60 P
Talent Analysis: Grigorenko captures great hockey sense, a quick release, and fantastic skating all within a 6’3, 200-pound frame. Many compare his style of play to that of Evgeni Malkin, others see more Joe Thornton. He has a great set of hands and can stickhandle in a phone booth, Grigorenko is the type of player than makes everything look easy and scores points with ease. Like most young players, Grigorenko struggles a bit in his own zone but it’s a wrinkle in his game that he’s working on ironing out. Grigorenko projects to be a number one center with good size and top notch offensive abilities. Grigorenko may have something to gain by spending one more season in the QMJHL, it will likely come down to what team drafts him; whether he’ll be in the NHL next season is really a toss up at this point.
Why the Sabres should pick him: Grigorenko has the size and the talent to be that true impact #1 center that the Sabres have been lacking since July 1st, 2007. Like Yakupov, Grigorenko is the type of player you can build an offense around. Strength down the middle is a common element in every Stanley Cup team and Grigorenko would be a great starting point. He is challenging Yakupov for the top spot right now and is a lock to go top three. He brings two things the Sabres desperately need in their top 6: elite offensive ability and size. Like Yakupov, Grigorenko carries little risk of bolting for the KHL as many Russians do. He has exhibited desire to play in the NHL and came to North America before this season after being selected 2nd overall in the CHL Import Draft.
Alex Galchenyuk – C – Sarnia Sting – OHL
0 GP – 0 G – 0 A – 0 P
Talent Analysis: Unfortunately, Galchenyuk has missed the entirety of the season thus far as a result of a preseason knee injury. Galchenyuk is every bit as talented as the two guys ranked ahead of him but there is the inherent risk of drafting a player coming off a major knee injury. Galchenyuk could potentially return to the line-up in March, if he can get back up to speed quickly it could do wonders for his draft stock. Galchenyuk is a great skater who is extremely strong on the puck and not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice. He possesses a laser of a shot and has fantastic hockey IQ and vision. Galchenyuk always seems to be a step ahead of the play, he sees the ice so well and always seems to know where the puck is going. He really is the complete package offensively; he can snipe with the best of them while at the same time seeing the ice well enough to make a career as a playmaker. Galchenyuk is also surprisingly good in his own end for a player as young as he is.
Why the Sabres should pick him: He will be undervalued at the draft because of the injury worries as well as having been pushed out of scouts minds because they haven’t seen him play this season. Had Galchenyuk not gotten injured and replicated his success from last season, he would be a lock for a top 5 pick. Instead he’s being ranked anywhere between 5th and 20th. Given that the Sabres likely will not end up with a top five pick, this is the guy the Sabres should be targetting as he could end up being a great value pick outside the top five. Galchenyuk is Russian by bloodlines, but he was born in the United States after his father (a former hockey player and current coach of the Sarnia Sting, Alex Galchenyuk Sr) moved to North America to continue his hockey career. Galchenyuk possesses the same game breaking offensive talent as Yakupov and Grigorenko and has the same potential, a player to build your offense around. Just like Grigorenko, Galchenyuk could eventually fill that top 6 center spot the Sabres have so desperately been looking to fill since Briere and Drury left.
Brendan Gaunce – C – Belleville Bulls – OHL
45 GP – 21 G – 23 A – 44 P
Talent Analysis: Gaunce has the size, talent, and tenacity to be a force at the NHL level some day. Gaunce brings a complete game, he competes at both ends of the rink and brings a good physical game as well. He’s the type of player that is a nightmare to play against night in and night out. Gaunce is mature beyond his years and is a hard worker on and off the ice. For a player not slated to go in the top five picks, he may be one of the most NHL ready players in the draft. He plays a very complete game and he has the mental make-up to go with it. Gaunce doesn’t possess the elite offensive ability of the guys ahead of him on this list, but he’s more than capable of using his size, tenacity, and bulldog mentality to generate chances on his own. Skating is an area where Gaunce could use a little bit of work.
Why the Sabres should pick him: Gaunce should develop into a strong second line center with good character and above average play in every area of the game. He’s not the game breaker that Yakupov, Grigorenko, and Galchenyuk are but he brings a lot to the table in other areas of the game that those three don’t. Every successful team needs a player like Gaunce; a heart and soul, two-way player who can log a lot of minutes. Gaunce is slated to go anywhere from 8th to 15th but is rising and could close in on top five by draft day.
Zemgus Girgensons – C – Dubuque Fighting Saints – USHL
26 GP – 13 G – 18 A – 31 P
Talent Analysis: Girgensons is a complete player who takes pride in taking care of the little details while working just as hard in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone.Girgensons coach describes his passion and will by comparing him to players like Jonathan Toews and Mark Messier. At the beginning of last season, Dubuque’s coach had the players write down their two best attributes. Girgensons pretty well encapsulated his entire game in those two attributes: puck protection and he will never give up. Girgensons is not an overly physical player but he certainly doesn’t mind getting involved physically either. He can pick his spots well for big hits and does not hesitate to get his nose dirty in front of the net or in the corners. Girgensons has displayed leadership qualities already at his young age and could be future captain material. Offensively, Girgensons thrives off his incredible vision and very soft hands making him a great playmaker. He is not a bad skater by any means but he could stand to work on both his first couple of strides and his top speed.
Why the Sabres should pick him: The hilarity of listening to Jeanneret calling a goal scored by Zemgus Girgensons should be reason enough to pick him. Either way, the well rounded Latvian will be a highly sought after asset on draft day. Similar to Gaunce, Girgensons is a do-it-all type of player who is potential captain material down the road in the NHL. Girgensons took the USHL route as opposed to reporting to the Kelowna Rockets (who drafted him in the CHL Import Draft) to preserve his college eligibility. As such, he is committed to the University of Vermont and will report there in the Fall. Girgensons is not NHL ready right now but with a little work on strength and skating, it won’t be long before he is.
* Unfortunately, the #FailForNail hashtag doesn’t quite click since Nail is not pronounced the same as that thing you pound into wood with a hammer. It’s actually pronounced Na-eel, but we’ll pretend it’s still pronounced nail just for the sake of the hashtag.